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NASA mission explores world's deepest sinkhole

PITTSBURGH -- A NASA-funded expedition, including researchers from Carnegie Mellon Universitys Robotics Institute, will begin searching for the submerged bottom of Mexicos El Zacatn sinkhole with a robotic submarine the week of May 14.

Zacatn, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, is a geothermal sinkhole, or cenote, that is more than 282 meters deep. Nobody has ever reached bottom and at least one diver has died attempting to do so. Scientists want to learn more about its physical dimensions, the geothermal vents that feed it and whatever life might exist at its various depths.

The Deep Phreatic Thermal Explorer (DEPTHX) mission will use a 2.5-meter-diameter submarine to map the cenotes shape, obtain water samples and return core samples from the cenote walls. In the process, DEPTHX will test technologies and methods that might be useful in other underwater missions, including the long-term possibility of exploring the oceans hidden under the icy crust of Europa, one of Jupiters moons.

The missions progress can be monitored at the Robotics Institutes DEPTHX Web site, www.frc.ri.cmu.edu/depthx, which will feature daily updates, images and graphics beginning May 15. A science writer from the University of Texas at Austins Jackson School of Geosciences will maintain a daily blog of the mission at http://geology.com/.

Bill Stone of Stone Aerospace in Austin, Texas, will lead a team that includes scientists from the University of Texas at Austin, the Colorado School of Mines and the Southwest Research Institute. The team also includes Associate Research Professor David Wettergreen and colleagues from Carnegie Mellons Robotics Institute, who helped develop the innovative DEPTHX sub.

"Well spend the first two days checking out DEPTHXs sensors, updating its software and performing a test dive to 250 meters to check its pressure housings," Wettergreen said. "Well
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Contact: Byron Spice
bspice@cs.cmu.edu
412-268-9068
Carnegie Mellon University
14-May-2007


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